July 10, 1985

Good afternoon, and welcome to the White House. It's an honor for Nancy and me and George and Barbara [Bush] to have all these distinguished members of the Cabinet -- all for them to be able to spend this time with all of you before you depart for the United Nations World Conference on Women. You know, I can't tell you why, but somehow this feels like a family affair. [Laughter]

Your efforts in Nairobi can help to improve the lot of women around the world -- half the population of the globe -- and no challenge could be more important. Maureen tells me that the delegation will focus on four issues, each a matter of the greatest importance, each a matter to which the members of your delegation will bring wide knowledge and experience.

First, women's literacy. Millions of the world's women can neither read nor write; some because schools in their countries are scarce, and others because they live in societies that encourage education only for men. Now, I grant you that the men are more in need of it, but -- [laughter]. But even in our own country -- [laughter] -- too many women have suffered educational neglect that has left them illiterate. In Nairobi your delegation will work to promote education for all.

Your second focus will be upon women in development, the role that women play as a country becomes more modern. Modern society can offer longer, healthier, and more prosperous lives, but the transition from traditional to modern modes of existence can place families and individuals under great stress. Women not only participate in the economic and social developments which lead to modern life but provide an anchor, a source of stability, as their societies undergo these difficult changes. And you will seek to highlight and enhance this unique role.

Third, you will draw attention to domestic violence against women and children. In our own nation we have just begun to understand the extent of this problem and to take the first steps toward solving it. In other societies domestic violence is sometimes taken for granted or ignored. Let us hope that delegates from around the world will work with you to condemn domestic violence in all its forms wherever it occurs.

Finally, your delegation will concentrate upon the plight of refugee women and children. As refugees, women face unique hardships. Many fall victim to rape and physical abuse. With their children, they often suffer discrimination in the distribution of food and medicine. In Nairobi you will seek to fasten the attention of the world upon these innocent women and children, and you will work to increase the number of women workers in refugee camps themselves. These, then, will be the issues that you champion.

And as we look to the Conference in Nairobi, we would do well to consider the United Nations Conference on Women in Mexico City in 1975 and in Copenhagen in 1980. At these conferences legitimate women's concerns, like the four on which you will concentrate, were all but pushed off the agenda. Commenting on the workings of the United Nations, former Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, a member of your delegation, once said that the biggest challenge for the United States is whether we can learn to be effective at the politics played at the U.N. Well, given the way the Conferences went in Mexico City and Copenhagen, we can be certain that will apply in Nairobi as well.

To make certain that you operate effectively, you have divided your delegation into caucus teams, small groups that will work to establish rapport with other delegations. You have planned informal conversation groups, opportunities to get together in relaxed settings with delegates from other countries. And you'll be visiting development projects, including Peace Corps and AID locations near Nairobi, gaining insights into the problems of women in developing countries.

The members of your delegation firmly believe that the business of this Conference is women, not propaganda. Should it prove necessary, you'll be more than willing to fight to keep the Conference on track. Take it from someone who knows Maureen, that's the way it's going to be. [Laughter] But, my friends, you represent the diversity and vitality of American women. And when you reach Nairobi, you, as Americans, will have a powerful story to share. For in our land of political and economic freedom, women take part in virtually every aspect of the life of our nation. I know that in Nairobi you'll work tirelessly with other delegations to help women make strides throughout the world. I thank you from my heart for giving of your time and talents to this historic task. God bless you all.

And now I understand that we'll have the chance to greet each of you personally, George and Barbara and Nancy and myself, in the other rooms. And so I will start out of the room here, and we will see you all again in the Red and the Blue Rooms, all right.

Note: The President spoke at 1:29 p.m. at a luncheon in the East Room at the White House. Maureen Reagan was head of the U.S. delegation.